A friend of mine has a new habit of sighing, “I’m so glad I’m not 10 years old.” It’s an interesting way to express her pessimism: by personifying her angst in the figure of a child. She’s worried about the encroaching climate devastation, the current administration’s relentless denialism of reproducible fact, and our nation’s increasingly exuberant geysers of zealotry. The planet’s increasing numbers of humans aren’t helping her peace of mind, either: They’re charted to spike to 11 billion by 2100—before which time toxic air may be suffocating us into extinction anyway.
I try to resist giving in to dark imaginings, but I share her dread. I don’t know what to do; I am sometimes unable to trust even my own senses. One of the peculiar responses to the proliferation of plundered forests, rising seas, authoritarianism, trolls, bots, dark money, and the politics of what The Washington Post has engagingly labeled “bottomless Pinocchios” is that there are moments when I feel as though I’m dreaming. I don’t trust anything.
Here’s a silly example: Recently, I went to a restaurant and ordered haddock. I was served what appeared to be a nice rosy slab of grilled salmon. “This isn’t haddock,” I said. “Yes, it is,” said the waitress. But it was late, and the kitchen was closing, so I decided to be grateful for whatever it was.
“How was your haddock?” the waitress asked later as she cleared my table. I faltered: Should I not notice that I’d been invited into a continuing lie? Or maybe it was some genetically altered version of a haddock, one whose normally flaky white flesh now comes in thick pink steaks. I’ve fished for haddock and gutted haddock—and I’ve done the same with salmon. I know the appearance, the taste, the difference. And yet… I doubted myself.
Our political moment is as Orwellian as that fish. Everything I thought I knew—as a lawyer, a citizen, a native speaker of English—has been challenged.
Yesterday, my friend sighed about being a hypothetical child again, but this time her resignation hit harder. I had just heard about the death of Jakelin Caal Maquin, a 7-year-old Mayan girl who was fleeing Guatemala with her father, and who died while in the custody of the US Border Patrol. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen expressed sympathy over Jakelin’s death, but faulted her family. “This family chose to cross illegally,” Nielsen said on Fox and Friends.
The language of consumption preference is a semantic tic in the Trump administration, with agency heads styling unspeakable cruelty as a “disincentive” for those who “choose” to flee life-threatening conditions. “Choice” imputes blame; it shifts the burden of responsibility and effectively criminalizes the process of asylum-seeking.
We have entered a dangerous moral universe. It reminds me of the notorious “Collateral Murder” video released by WikiLeaks in 2010, which showed US helicopters gunning down a small group of people walking on a street in Baghdad. At least a dozen people, including civilians and two journalists, were killed, and two young children were seriously wounded. A voice in the helicopter can be heard saying, “Well, it’s their fault for bringing their kids into a battle.” A second voice responds: “That’s right.”
War turns meaning upside down. In a 2007 interview with author David Finkel, Gen. David Petraeus said of the American soldiers killed in Iraq: “The truth is you never get used to losses…. But if you have some good days, it sort of drains away.”
My inner 10-year-old does not want to get “used to losses.” Indeed, the refusal to do so is the very claim that has been made, under “public trust” doctrine, in the pending federal-court case of Juliana v. the United States. The plaintiffs are 21 children ranging from 11 to 22 years old, and they have alleged that the destruction of the earth’s atmosphere is a violation of substantive due process and equal protection, because it threatens their very future. The rest of us, meanwhile, seem to have forgotten that government should inspire public trust.
Surely this determined sense of a right to exist is the same commitment that Jakelin’s father felt as he fled the legacy of a civil war specifically targeting Mayan populations in Guatemala. Surely this insistence on the right to be is what also drives the stateless millions around the globe fleeing displacement by war, toxins, climate change, flood, famine, and drought.
Our president has been able to defame the northward flow of mostly Central American mothers and children as a terrorist invasion, twisting low probabilities of petty crime into a racially weaponized certainty of total destruction. It’s easier to dehumanize people depicted as “swarming,” as “parasites,” as infection. But the management of desperate civilians is badly served by models of raging contamination—or by blaming a child’s death on the parents who fled death in an attempt to save her. Inversion of meaning cannot reverse what happens in fact. It cannot resurrect the dead.
Meanwhile, in the land where haddock is not haddock and climate change is not real, we tolerate other misnomers and strange loops of meaning. We begin to accept that boxing children up in desert detention camps like industrial surplus will not break them. We start to believe that drone strikes and border armies will make for sustainable ecosystems.
As we walk farther and farther down an ideological path where we see one another only as data points for disaster, we will end up having abandoned some of our most fundamental commitments: to hospitality as humanizing, to children as our future, and to earth as our mother.